Once of the legendary Spinal Tap, now a solo artist, the great Derek Smalls returns with a star-studded album, including a song about his ‘old chap’.
Mutton chops; large trouser vegetables; a twin-neck BC Rich bass; getting caught in an on-stage pod; a string of dead drummers; Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight; custom-made amps that go up to 11. If any of those mean something to you, you’re familiar with the epic ‘rockumentary’ This Is Spinal Tap.
Released in 1984, it’s the greatest depiction of hard-rock mayhem ever committed to film. The eponymous band, comprising bassist Derek Smalls, guitarists Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins, plus a series of deceased percussionists, were one of the most iconic groups of headbangers ever formed. Smalls famously likened the two mercurial guitarists to fire and ice, with him as ‘lukewarm water’ between them.
Spinal Tap have returned to the limelight every now and then, most recently at 2007’s Live Earth concert at Wembley Stadium, where they performed their epic bass-only Big Bottom among other seminal tunes.
Now Smalls is back, promoting a new album, Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing), on which the legendary bassist is joined by Peter Frampton, Donald Fagen, Dweezil Zappa, Rick Wakeman, Richard Thompson, Steve Lukather, Joe Satriani, Michael League, Steve Vai and many other stars. It’s a true honour, then, when Smalls bestows an interview upon us.
(It hardly seems worth mentioning, but rumours have long abounded that Derek is actually the comic creation of a 74-year-old man called Harry Shearer, known for his work on the The Simpsons and elsewhere, but that sounds like hearsay to us…)
Derek, you described the presence of all the stars on your new album as a ‘pity fuck’. In that case, how do you describe interviews such as this?
“I think of them as a pity kiss. That’s a bit less intense.”
Did you play bass on the album?
“I’m lead bass on the record. There’s no other bass players on the record. As a matter of fact, in the thank-yous on the album I even thank a legendary bass player, Lee Sklar, for not appearing on the record. It was my way of saying ‘I’ve got this.’”
Gear for the years
Are your bass skills as good as they used to be, back in the '80s?
“Well, you like to think, as you gain wrinkles and hair in peculiar places, that your skills can develop along with your body. I’d say I’m more than a match.”
Talking of body parts, I was taken with the song Memo To Willie. Is it still functioning as it should?
“Oh yeah. That’s a look forward. The theme of the record is meditations upon ageing, so I’m looking back and I’m looking forward. I’m looking at a time when that might be more than a flight of fancy.”
The line ‘Don’t look at me like that’ made me laugh a lot.
Can I ask you what bass gear you’re currently playing?
“I suppose you have to at your magazine; it’s in your job description. I’m playing a Schecter five-string with Ernie Ball Slinky strings. I don’t use effects pedals. I used to play BC Rich, and for our Break Like The Wind tour in 1992 I was playing Tobias basses. And then at Glastonbury and Live Earth I was playing Lakland. They made me a bass which depicted the entire Earth on it. That will be useful if the Earth disappears but the bass survives, because people will have a record of it.”
That bass had six pickups.
“I believe it did. Some excessive number like that. I demanded lots of pickups because I thought, ‘This’ll look nice on telly.’ If you’re playing for a billion people around the world, you should give them a bit of a show. Something to brighten their day.”
Do you still have the old double-neck BC Rich?
“I don’t have that bass any more. I think I left it in Japan. They loved us so much over there that when a fan asked me for it after the last gig in Tokyo, I thought ‘Fuck it’ and gave it to them. They kept saying ‘We love you. We love you’... I do have a blue Tobias with the body shaped like a dollar sign, though. The two necks are the lines that go through the dollar symbol. I have all the old stuff stored away, because one day Tap will be worth something.”
Your album strikes me as rather sad.
“It’s not sad. Ageing can give you new viewpoints on life. You do become more contemplative, because things like mortality seep in.”
While other things seep out?
Do you believe in an afterlife?
“I believe in the belief in an afterlife.”
Does heavy metal have a place in the next world?
“It’s louder there. Much louder, because there aren’t any technical constraints.”
Did you ever meet Lemmy?
“No, I never did. Why, did you think we exchanged hair tips?”
I thought your mutton chops were similar to his.
“No, we were independent actors on the tonsorial stage.”
How is your relationship with David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel these days?
“To call it a relationship is a bit extreme. David communicates with me at this point through Chinese pictograms. I don’t know what they mean. I get them in emails out of the blue.
“I talk to Nige, but he’s been obsessed with breeding miniature race horses. The problem there is finding jockeys small enough to ride them. He had to turn to other livestock, and when I spoke to him about six months ago he was working with miniature goats. Unfortunately they’re too bloody small to milk.”
Goats are the quintessential heavy metal animal, of course.
“Yes, they are, especially if you’re a Capricorn.”
Having pioneered heavy metal as you did, where do you stand on modern metal?
“Well, I’ve listened to a bit of thrash and speed metal and death metal, and I marvel at their technical capabilities. I have a friend, who now lives in Albania for tax reasons, and he was in a near-death metal band called Chainsaw Vermin. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them? You really need to put in the work to have that technique. Near-death metal is much more lugubrious, of course, in its tempo, or tempi.”
Talking of technique, did you ever master slap bass?
“I tried it, and it hurt my hand. It really did. I sprained a finger doing that, in all seriousness. It was not for me. I think the R&B guys have an extra knuckle or something.”
Cucumbers and cancellations
What are your memories of the Hear ‘N Aid project of 1985?
“It was strange, because we’d been out of the fraternity because of our lack of success. It was almost thrilling to be welcomed in. I think somebody must have cancelled at the last minute, and we were available.”
Did you ever have an amp that went up to 11?
“No, it was just the guitar players. I played the shit out of my bass and got my volume the old-fashioned way.”
Are you still sporting cucumbers in your underwear?
“No. We knew that there was a film crew walking around filming us, and you get a lot of nerves, and obviously on stage you want to have the proper demeanour, shall we say. So on that tour I wanted to make sure that the nervousness didn’t sap one of the proper demeanour. No, I’m fine these days... I’m fine.”
Have you ever been caught in a pod again?
“I’ve stayed out of pods, mate. Once bitten, twice shy, as they say in the shy business. I stay out of enclosures. I don’t even like lifts, to tell you the truth. No seriously, I’ll take the stairs, thank you.”
Even if you’re going to the 20th floor?
“Yeah. It’s the only exercise I get, so I might as well take it.”
Has any band ever equalled the on-stage impact of Spinal Tap at its peak?
“I saw Judas Priest early on, and I was most impressed, mainly by the impact that the kick drum had on my chest. I thought I was having an infarction or something, or an arrhythmia. It was just remarkable. And then of course I went about with Saxon for a while; they had a great rough-and-ready stage thing going on. Not many bells and whistles, just a great stage presence. They were there to do business.”
It is widely thought that your image was inspired by Saxon’s bassist Steve Dawson. Any truth to that?
“No. We shared tips.”
It’s a shame we never got to see much of Tap’s 1960s psychedelic era, when you were playing a Rickenbacker.
“Well, Rickenbackers were the sound of the psychedelic era, much as the Hofner violin bass was the sound of the British Invasion, thanks to Sir Paul. You had those ringing guitars, and I thought the bass might ring a bit too.”
Talking of McCartney, do you think there will ever be a knightly prefix before the name of Smalls?
“Well listen, if you’re talking to the Queen, put in a word before it’s too late. They knight everybody these days, don’t they? If you do a cooking show they give you an OBE. So where’s old Derek in that mix?”
Would you be jealous if David and Nigel got gongs before you?
“I think so, because they’re long out of it, whereas I’m still in there, whacking away. There’s a lot to be said for whacking away. I think my sheer persistence merits a gong.”
I hope you’ll be touring the album?
“Your supposition is well-supposed. We’re lining up a symphony tour in the States called Lukewarm Water Live, and we open in New Orleans on 14 April. Think of it: old Derek - old DS - with a symphony orchestra.”
You would never have imagined that back in 1984.
“No. I would never have imagined even going to a symphony concert, let alone being in one.”
It’s an ambitious project. You could have just sat on the sofa and watched The Simpsons.
“I could have bathed in my lack of laurels. But no, I decided to go balls-out.”
“Not literally. I’ll be well-clothed for the event. I think everybody [who plays] knows what it’s like on the lower levels of the lighted stage. I did a midnight gig with the Snarky Puppy boys, just to see what it’s like at centre stage, and the light is brighter there. It’s warmer, and I’m a bit sensitive to the cold. Being on stage sometimes gets a bit breezy, and the warmth at the centre made me think, ‘This is the way to go’.”
And being warm on stage avoids unnecessary ‘shrinkage’.
“You follow me exactly. It happens, just as night follows day.”
There’s a great line on the album: ‘Lukewarm water still needs somewhere to go’.
“That’s really the mantra, or the motto, or the ‘mottora’ if you combine the two, of this tour. I still need somewhere to go. Don’t you?”
And on that note, thank you for the interview. It’s an honour to speak to you.
“It’s an honour to be spoken to.”
Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing) is out now.